How can we rethink climate communications to reach deniers and ‘delayers’?

A poll of 2,000 UK-based adults has revealed that one-quarter do not think climate change is a real and present problem, uncovering common problems with climate-related communications that are breeding conspiracy theories, confusion and overwhelm.

How can we rethink climate communications to reach deniers and ‘delayers’?

Conducted online by Opinium late last year, the poll was undertaken on behalf of the firstlight group, which published the results this week. The overarching conclusion is that, while most adults in the UK do understand that climate change is real and that its physical effects are already being felt – with more to come in their lifetimes – 25% are either deniers or ‘delayers’.

This is equivalent to around 17 million people. While deniers outright believe that climate change is not happening due to human activity, delayers believe we should not be overly concerned. They may believe that climate impacts are less severe than scientists state, or will play out over a longer timeframe, for example.

firstlight group has identified three broad reasons that people may fall into this demographic. It has called the findings “fascinating, worrying, even enraging, yet also illuminating”.

The first is that people may be highly sceptical of the science. These people are typically also distrusting of corporations, governments, mainstream media and scientists working on other issues. From their distrust, conspiracy theories are often born. firstlight group describes this group as “conspirators” and, while they are the smallest minority, they are the hardest to engage and persuade. Moreover, they are often very vocal.

The second is that people do not think that climate change will impact them. They also have some level of distrust in scientists and other climate communicators. But, unlike the “conspirators”, these people often do think that climate change is happening – they usually, instead, question the scale and source of the issue. The report calls these people “contrarians”.

The third and largest minority are those who are simply “the overwhelmed”. These people do believe in climate science but feel either too confused, too helpless or too busy to engage with the topic. They can usually be convinced to engage, but only if communicated with in the right ways.

It bears noting that under-35s are less likely to be deniers or delayers, according to the researchers’ findings.

The report argues that to engage delayers and deniers – and to stop these groups from expanding – communications need to be improved.

Here, we pull out the headline stats and facts from the report – plus its key recommendations on what kinds of language to use.

In numbers: The ‘Rethinking Climate Communications’ report 

Language matters

When engaging with those who are potentially deniers or delayers, the report cautions against the use of the following terms. It does so on the grounds noted below, taken from a focus group of six climate deniers and delayers.

Selected recommendations for improving climate communications from this report:

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